Get Educated about the Grant Funding Process Before You Apply

Educating yourself about the grant funding process will improve your likelihood of using grants as a financial tool for waste and environmental projects.

Sarah Aubrey

An unprecedented number of grants are now available for entrepreneurs, communities, technology developers and implementers, agricultural producers, municipalities and small businesses in the areas of waste management and recycling. Funds can be used for new projects, upgrades to old systems and for value-added ventures. According to, the federal government’s grant search engine, there are more than 26 agencies offering dollars from more than 900 grant programs each year. Not counting the stimulus funds of 2009, 2010 and 2011, the feds have awarded more than $350 billion each year in grants. Funding sources are not just governmental. The waste management realm is of interest to trade groups and corporate foundations as well. Social responsibility giving—including giving to foundations that support the causes, new products, services and industries the giver cares about—is on the rise. Foundation giving makes up almost 2 percent of our GDP (gross domestic product), according to the “Chronicle of Philanthropy”, an article published recently in The Wall Street Journal. The Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University goes even farther saying that contributions to social causes amounts to $732 per person in America today. Not all of this money is for ‘charity’ per se—as much as 25 percent is used to fund grant programs.

Of course, the common lament is that funding levels are getting tighter and the competition stronger as the industry grows and more players get in. Knowing where to find the funds, how to apply for them, and how to produce quality proposals that get the needed dollars takes expertise and contacts. Most industry players have the experience and contacts; however, if grant success is elusive, they may be overlooking an understanding of the entire grant process. In her book Demystifying Grant Seeking, the author, Judith E. Nichols, notes: “Grant seeking relies more on knowing what to do than how to write.”

As a grant writer in this industry for six years, I concur. Preparedness and planning are the missing links in securing grant funds in a competitive environment. ‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail’, goes the adage. Never has this been more accurate than in the case of grant funding today. Educating yourself about grant funding is unique because applications require so much documentation and agencies vary. The average size of federal application that leaves our office is more than 250 pages and many exceed 600. That is a lot of work, organizing and planning! To mount a strong grant writing case, it boils down to five key areas that many would-be successful applicants fail to implement well in advance of the grant application:

  1. Community acceptance planning

  2. Technical feasibility assessments completed by a third party

  3. Permitting and zoning ready

  4. Partnerships identified and formed

  5. Timeline that is doable

Public Relations and Community Acceptance

The number one area that often gets overlooked is public relations (PR). No, you don’t need a PR plan as an attachment to your next grant application. But, you will need to show a great deal of documentation indicating that your project can or is moving forward; much of that material is only accessible if local officials approve your requests for zoning changes, site development and permitting. Jay Catasein of Twisted Oak Corporation (Atlanta, GA), biomass to energy developers, says a successful project is akin to a three-legged stool, “One of those legs is community acceptance accomplished through savvy public relations. Many projects fail because this element of planning is relegated to the end of development.”

Focused on sound technical merit and dollars, many developers don’t take time to avoid major PR mistakes such these top six:

  1. Not considering PR part of the project business plan

  2. Initiating local PR only after opposition is present

  3. Appearing too secretive in the name of protecting proprietary information

  4. Involving only the developer’s preferred political party in the process

  5. Not involving media on a proactive basis

  6. Relying only on consultants causing too little developer involvement in the local area

Catasein says technical merit and sound financials are the first two legs in the stool, but without public acceptance, the stool is likely to topple over. “The nation is now littered with failed development of good, technically sound projects undertaken by developers who ignored the importance of local opinion early in the process. Many developers fail to initiate community acceptance strategies until strong opposition has organized to defeat the well-intentioned efforts of the developer,” he points out.

Grant writing tip: You’re going to need those relationships later when support letters are required for some grants. Better to not only have forged the relationships early on than to have to repair later.

Technical and Feasibility

All projects moving toward implementation will have assessed technology and feasibility. However, as a grant writer, I often run into material that meets the developer’s standards, but not those of the grant agency. One possible roadblock is often found in how the feasibility study is prepared. For many of its grant programs, USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) requires that feasibility studies be included and that they be completed by an independent consultant. Straight from the regulations found at, here is the description of a qualified consultant: “The study must be prepared by an independent, qualified consultant with a recognized expertise in the type of operation being analyzed. The analyst cannot be ‘in-house’, a firm with a proprietary interest in the project, a vendor or any other party with a potential conflict of interest or vested interest in the outcome of the study.”

The study is further evaluated by USDA’s five-part test to check for the inclusion of the following major components, also detailed at the Web site above:

  • Economic

  • Market

  • Technical

  • Financial

  • Management

Grant writing tip: Project developers should make themselves familiar with similar guidelines from other agencies to receive maximum application points.

Permitting, Zoning

Much like technology and feasibility, project planners know that zoning and permitting are part of the implementation plan. However, more than one project has been tripped up by not initiating these processes quick enough to meet grant documentation requirements. “The community zoning board will be most interested in knowing where a project is proposed, what the project is, what it does, how it (basically) works, any potential what environmental impacts, and any zoning considerations and how a change in project site zoning could affect their own property,” says Mike Dunn, Initiative Director with the Indiana Soybean Alliance (Indianapolis, IN). Dunn knows zoning and permitting having worked at the Indiana environmental management agency (IDEM) for 11 years dealing with permitting especially for waste management.

Beyond the local level, most projects will be subject to a state permitting action that exposes the very detailed project plans for a public review during the permitting process. The state does have a proprietary protection option for any and all applicants seeking a permit to protect sensitive materials,” he adds. Grant applications for any technical project will want to see permit, zoning and site concerns addressed. Even if the timeline for obtaining these is in the future, if a grant is due and indicates documentation is required, points are deducted if there is not an adequate response.

Grant writing tip: At the very least, research and then name those permits required at every stage of the project and propose a timeline for obtaining.

Partnerships Ready to Go

There are times when you can go it alone and times, like in the case of large federal grant applications, when more than one entity makes a stronger showing. Crafting partnership arrangements for research, implementation or just to showcase the project in the community is important for many grants. One great example is to partner with academia. Chad Martin, Renewable Energy Extension Specialist with Purdue University has worked with a variety of entities to move the industry forward. “Establishing relationships with university faculty researchers can open doors for many entrepreneurs when attracting funds for creating innovative and new ideas,” he explains. Partnerships show a level of responsibility on the part of the applicant and also show that others in the industry, especially those carrying the heft of a major university, see merit in the project. “These alliances often add credibility to a project when reviewers score your proposal,” Martin points out.

Finally, universities have free and low cost benefits and are built on knowledge capture and dissemination. Using well-documented, third-party information as a basis for a grant application is a sound tactic. “Many have also uncovered untapped resources which may be available to mutually benefit your project and the mission of a research institution,” Martin adds.

Grant writing tip: Partnerships are often required to be formally established through documentation like Letters of Intent, Memorandums of Understanding, or even legal entity formation like an LLC. Because these take time, if you are looking at grant funding, be certain these are on your pre-application to do list.


The final piece in planning for a successful grant funding program is putting it all together in a timeline that is doable. Every solid project manager has his or her own system that works best. As a grant writer, I recognize that not every project has the luxury of time, but the rate of success goes up as the strategy and attention to detail get more consideration. Figure 1 shows a sample 30-day grant planning process. The process should be modified to fit the particular situation and grant as well as the size of the team and the agency’s guidelines. For example, an entrepreneur might be able to make adjustments and write content all the way up until the ‘submit’ button is hit, but a project within a university will have channels to swim through before the application leaves the premises. With that in mind, mold the process to fit the organizational structure.

Grant writing tip: Be certain to build an accurate timeline for your project’s completion. Grant applications will require this as well as a work plan indicating who will own each major task.

Concluding Thoughts on Grant Funding

Education about the grant funding process will improve the likelihood of using grants as a financial tool for waste and environmental projects. The above list is not exhaustive: every grant agency and every grant program during every fiscal year is unique. So, if the developer intends to use grant funding, a solid investment in time and training about common requirements from their funder of choice is an investment that pays back.

Sarah Aubrey is the owner of Prosperity Ag and Energy Resources (Monrovia, IN), a full-service funding opportunities firm that aids entrepreneurs, communities, universities, trade associations and cooperatives in obtaining funds through the use of government or foundation programs in the areas of agriculture, energy, environment and food manufacturing. As a Certified Grant Administrator, Sarah aids clients in networking with state and federal agencies and trade groups to foster all areas of project development. Since 2007, Ms. Aubrey has written over 400 successful grants in 33 states; funding for these awards has yielded nearly $50 million. She can be reached at (317) 996-2777 or visit Prosperity AG on twitter, linkedin, facebook, blogspot, and sign up for a free monthly newsletter with grant listing and project success stories at

Figure 1

Figure 1

30-Day Grant Planning Process.

Image courtesy of Prosperity AG.


Selected Waste Management and Recycling Grants

Below is a short list of possible waste management and recycling grants. Be sure to also check your state’s energy and environmental departments and consider corporate foundations.

USDA Solid Waste Management Grant Program

USDA Water and Waste Disposal Direct Loans and Grants

NSF Environmental Engineering

NSF Environmental Sustainability

Conservation Innovation Grants (under EQIP)

EPA Brownfields Assessment, Revolving Loan Fund, and Cleanup (ARC) Grant

EPA Water Quality Management Planning Grants